For the past 15 years, I have taught Facing History at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. In my class, students use primary source readings, memoirs, and texts that explore pivotal moments in world history – moments of mass violence and genocide, moments of crimes against humanity, and moments when civil rights have been disregarded. I teach Facing History because I believe that through the study of historical instances of racism, of intolerance, of antisemitism, and of hatred, my students can increase their ability to be compassionate, tolerant, loving, and productive members of their own communities today. In studying how past violence and prejudices came to be, I see my students better able to understand and question the roots of the violence and prejudice they see and read about in the news. So when the story broke recently about celebrity chef Paula Deen’s use of the “n word,” I immediately turned to what I’ve learned by teaching a Facing History class to better understand the events.
Regardless of what you know about Paula Deen, you're probably aware of this much - things have changed dramatically for the Southern cooking star after news went viral recently after she admitted to using the “n word” in a legal deposition this May. Public outcry was swift, the internet buzzed with responses, and corporate sponsors couldn't shed their Paula Deen brand products fast enough. Yes, condemnation and criticism were quick in coming, yet I can't help but wonder, where's the dialogue? Where's the complex discussion about what any of this means? Indeed, pointing fingers at Paula Deen is easy, but facing our shared history with prejudice and racism and facing ourselves and how these issues play out for each of us today is much more complex.
Although many have fixated on Deen's admission that she had used the “n word," I was most struck by Deen's description of what happened to her great grandfather: "There was 30-something people on his books," Deen said. After "losing all the workers," in addition to losing his son at the end of the Civil War, "he didn't know how to deal with life with no one to help operate his plantation," factors that perhaps led to his suicide. "Back then, black folk were such an integral part of our lives, they were like our family," Deen went on to say. When I first heard these words, all I noticed was the disconnect. Where was the acknowledgement that those "30-something people" weren't "workers" but slaves? How could a group of people enslave African Americans and at the same time insist that this human chattel was "like family”? But the more I thought about it, the more I considered the fact that Deen's statements were not just personally telling, but nationally significant as well. And it made me think: Just how successfully has our country dealt with the history, judgment, memory, and legacy of slavery?
At first glance, the official "judgment" seems pretty well settled. While textbooks have varying levels of depth in their discussion of slavery in the American South, I've certainly never come across one that praised the institution or painted it as anything less than morally wrong. But is that the end of "judgment”? Are we satisfied in the simple admission that slavery was "bad”?
Absent in high school textbooks is the consideration of collective guilt and responsibility for this chapter in our nation's history – or an admission that slavery created a race-based system that made whites superior to blacks, a system that still rears its ugly head in the form of "white privilege" to this day. And speaking of history, let's make sure we're getting it correct - let's confront mythology, misinformation, and euphemism whenever we encounter it. Realize that textbooks refer to "a peculiar institution" and Deen calls her great grandfather's slaves "workers" because we, as a nation, haven't adequately faced our painful past. It seems that we, as a country, admit to the evils of slavery while simultaneously resisting an in-depth examination of its consequences. How is it that the hatred, bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination experienced by people of color in our society today has become so disconnected from its roots in slavery?
The fact that there is no National Slave Memorial seems rather telling to me. I remember during my trip to Germany a few years ago, I was so moved by the various monuments to those who suffered under the Nazi regime. My first thought was, "Where is our public apology, acknowledgement, or memorial to slavery?" Indeed, the National Slave Memorial was proposed in a congressional session in 2003 to honor the victims of slavery in the U.S. but was not adopted. Instead, Congress supported the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to be built on the National Mall. The groundbreaking occurred earlier this year and the center is scheduled to open sometime in 2015. There's something to be said for changing a memorial to a museum, and for the very long delay between the end of slavery and any attempt to commemorate it on a national level.
What is that "something to be said" about all of this? The truth is, I can't determine that. None of us can - alone. Because the "something to be said" shouldn't be determined by one person or one voice. We don't need a soliloquy, we need a dialogue. We need honest, ongoing conversation about the impact and legacy of slavery - on our nation, our institutions, our families, and ourselves. We need to let go of our insistence on polarity - "We [our state, our generation, our family in particular, etc.] didn't have slavery, they did" - because the fact remains that the reach of this history touches us all. How can we get to a place of active engagement around this issue? How can we encourage intentional and purposeful dialogue that connects our nation's history with the moral choices we face today? How can we help people realize that more than we need to scrutinize Paula Deen, we need to face our history and ourselves? I firmly believe that the only way to do this is through conversation – conversation with ourselves, with others in our communities and schools, and with those around the world that are both very similar and very different from this. We must have these conversations with an open mind and an eye toward the past as well as toward the future.